Kyle Von Hasseln displays a six-foot black ratsnake he captured as part of his conservation research. After obtaining a blood sample for his studies, he returned the snake to the Vermont wild. Photo by Liz Rolerson courtesy Kyle Von Hasseln.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-It is fair to say that Vermont’s black ratsnakes have no greater friend than Kyle von Hasseln. A senior at Middlebury College and a resident of Bridgton, Maine, who is majoring in biology, he has been getting acquainted with the reptile since the summer of 2004.

Black ratsnakes are powerful constrictors that, when juveniles, resemble copperheads.  They are semi-arboreal in nature and are often seen climbing trees to take shelter in hollowed cavities and to search for food.  They feed almost exclusively on small rodents, rabbits or birds, and are not poisonous.

“The black ratsnake is declining in Vermont due to increasing human population and development, and is thus in danger of extinction locally.  I became so interested in helping preserve the black ratsnake population here that I decided to build my entire thesis around it,” said von Hasseln.  “After examining various current peer-reviewed literature, I learned that genetic data are increasingly used in conservation projects and realized that molecular biological research needed to be incorporated into my studies in order to have the most positive impact upon the snake’s population.”

For his thesis research to assess the genetic diversity of the reptile in Vermont, a Middlebury College Academic Outreach Endowment Service-Learning Grant enabled him to spend the 2005 summer gathering shed snake skin, tissue and blood samples of Champlain Valley specimens, and then sequence and analyze the DNA in a Middlebury laboratory.  Von Hasseln’s research will be of direct relevance to the conservation of the black ratsnake population, recently listed as state-threatened.

After spending the summer of 2004 in conventional fieldwork research outlining the extent and geographic distribution of the black ratsnake’s population within Vermont, Von Hasseln is now looking at its DNA.  His research this year involves extracting DNA from the samples he gathered during the 2005 summer from different  regions of the valley, and then proliferating them in the lab to provide an abundant supply of ratsnake DNA for his study.  He then manipulates the DNA with an instrument that determines the sequence of chemical constituents, called a “DNA sequencer.”  Recently acquired by the college, the sequencer, which is the same machine used to sequence the human genome, yields data for Von Hasseln’s analysis and interpretation.

According to Von Hasseln, his research demonstrates what he refers to as the relatedness of snakes.  Based on the similarity of their gene sequences, he believes that snakes in Vermont are particularly closely related to snakes in Canada, suggesting that the populations, now hundreds of kilometers apart, were once contiguous.

Von Hasseln plans to share his data and analysis with the nonprofit organization Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians in Vermont (ARAV), an ecological conservation team that catalogs the many species of reptiles and amphibians in the state.  “The Atlas will be able to use my study to direct conservation efforts.  My genetic data shows that the black ratsnake’s range has declined substantially, which is generally an indication that a species may be on the verge of extirpation. ARAV can relate the plight of the black ratsnakes to the larger Vermont community by meeting with key landowners and holding public forums,” said von Hasseln. “I plan to be a part of these forums as a liaison between the scientific community and the general public.”

“Kyle’s thesis research is one of the most integrative and innovative that the biology department has ever seen,” said Middlebury College Associate Professor of Biology Helen Young, who advises von Hasseln on methodological and analytical approach. “His data is likely to be complex, making the data analysis complicated, but he’s determined and energetic. I’m sure he’ll have an interesting story to tell in the end.”

Von Hasseln, who will present his thesis next spring, has a strong environmental conservation ethic beyond his study of the black ratsnake.  A member of Middlebury College’s Project BioBus, he took a leave of absence from college for the 2004 fall term to travel across the country and back with a team of 12 other Middlebury students, using a biodiesel fuel-driven bus.  Their 15,000-mile itinerary for educational outreach included biodeisel awareness and information presentations at schools, colleges and universities in 22 cities from Vermont, New York and Washington, D.C., to Illinois, California and Texas.

“Conservation genetics and vegetable oil-based fuels are not related, of course, but both venues help me understand and hopefully lessen the impact humans have on the environment,” he said.

After graduation from Middlebury College in May 2006, Von Hasseln plans to pursue graduate studies in molecular ecology.